License plate court ruling prompts new law | News, Sports, Jobs


Senator Scott Martin

A Republican lawmaker is preparing legislation to amend a state law that can prompt unnecessary traffic stops.

A state appeals court recently ruled in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Derrick Ruffin that any obstruction of a vehicle’s license plate is a reason for a police officer to pull the vehicle over. sen. Scott Martin, R-Strasburg, has issued a co-sponsorship memo asking for support for legislation he will introduce amending the state law the appeals court judges used in their ruling.

“In the near future, I plan to introduce legislation to clarify legislative intent regarding 75 Pa.CS Section 1332 as it pertains to license plates in the recent Pennsylvania Superior Court decision Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Derrick Ruffin,” Martin wrote. “The decision issued by the three-judge Superior Court panel would allow for a member of law enforcement to stop a driver if any part of their license plate is obscured, even if the obstruction covers only the paint around the edges or the “visitpa.com” at the bottom of the plate. The consequence of this decision has likely made thousands of Pennsylvania drivers in violation of the law overnight.”

The lawsuit stems from a traffic stop in Philadelphia in which a police officer pulled a vehicle over for a partially obstructed registration plate. The license plate numbers and registration were visible, but a license plate holder on the vehicle obstructed the state tourism website portion of the plate.

As the officer conducted the traffic stop he noticed a front-seat passenger allegedly conceal something on the seat. The officer searched the vehicle and found a loaded revolver underneath a sweatshirt where the passenger had been sitting. Several additional rounds of ammunition were also found in the passenger’s pants pocket.

The passenger’s attorney filed a motion in court to suppress physical evidence found during the search of the vehicle, saying the stop, search and seizure were a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure under the US Constitution and state constitutional. The court agreed, and district attorneys filed an appeal. The appeals court agreed with the prosecutors and reversed the lower court’s decision.

” … we hold that Section 1132(b)(3) unambiguously prohibits the obstruction or concealment of any portion of a registration plate, including the address to our commonwealth’s tourism website,” the appellate court wrote in its ruling. “While we appreciate Appellee’s position that Section 1332 should be limited to the elements of a registration plate that are actually pertinent to the identification of a vehicle’s registration, that interpretation does not comport with a plain reading of the statute. As Section 1332(b)(3) unambiguously pertains to any partial covering of a Pennsylvania license plate, we may not disregard the letter of the law “under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.”

Martin’s legislation will clarify that the protections of Section 1332 of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code apply only to the important identifiable information displayed on a license plate. The legislation hasn’t been written and formally introduced yet, so how Martin plans to do so is unclear.

“In fact, when first reading the decision, I happened to be in a parking lot. I looked up and noticed a substantial portion of vehicles with custom frames surrounding their plates, often issued by their car dealers or of their favorite sports team. This decision would now mean that any one of those drivers could be pulled over with probable cause. I do not believe this was the intent of lawmakers, and how can we reasonably expect law enforcement to consistently apply this ruling in their daily activities?” Martin wrote in his memo “It is the responsibility of the court to call balls and strikes and interpret the meaning of the law. Their ruling is not a reflection of preferred outcomes (surely it is not their intent to criminalize hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania drivers), but rather a call to the legislature to now perform its responsibility and better clarify language in the statute. My legislation will do just that.”

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